In 1827 Thomas De Quincey, the former eater of opium and literary rockstar of early Victorian Britain, published an essay entitled "On Murder as Considered One of the Fine Arts." It was a piece of satire to be sure, and one that deftly employed a Swiftian mechanical rationality to argue an obviously insane point -- that one can find aesthetic pleasure in certain acts of grotesque violence. The essay certainly made me re-evaluate, if only for a moment, my own interest in the lurid non-fiction I had been reading since middle school. While most authors working in what is now termed "True Crime" at least attempt to play the role of journalist within the narrative of their books, not many of us True Crime literature consumers tend to think of it as journalism proper. Which I'm sure can't be a positive characteristic of this community of readers. Luckily, the smart and talented blogger Michelle McNamara, whose website True Crime Diary is quite phenomenal, has injected some much needed investigative objectivity into a genre that seemed to be dying a slow, tabloid death. She was also nice enough to answer some questions on the topic.
-- Tristan D.
Almost Always Books (AAB): An observation I have made, being an avid consumer of True Crime literature, is that the fanbase seems to be devoid of snobs. The people I know personally who identify as True Crime aficionados certainly recognize the literary merit of, say, In Cold Blood, but are just as likely to laud any number of trashy trade paperbacks they have read. Why do you think this is? Or is the community you are plugged into different from the one I am acquainted with?
Michelle McNamara (MM): Interesting observation, and true in my experience as well. I certainly toggle between high and low myself. I think the reason for this is that True Crime fans are drawn primarily to the story, the facts and details that make up a particular case, and if those are compelling enough the quality of the telling doesn't matter as much. I've been just as engrossed in reading rather dry court transcripts of a murder case as I have been reading the more literary crime nonfiction. Sometimes a particular case seizes you and won't let go. My experience in being obsessed with a specific case is that I'm greedy for facts; it's certainly better to be carried along in an artful way, but I'll sift through garbage for the relevant details if I have to.
AAB: From my perspective, your blog (less so than the podcast of yours I've listened to) is weighted slightly more toward the forensic/cold-case file side of True Crime than the psychological/narrative side. Am I misreading this, or does this reflect your own interest in amature detective work?
MM: I would definitely say I lean toward the cold case, unsolved side. I'm not so interested in examining the psychology of a known notorious criminal, like a Son of Sam or someone like that. This might be because I don't feel qualified to do that. Also, my interest is in how technology, particularly the Internet, allows everyday citizens to solve crimes. I'm drawn to cases that aren't so high profile, that are maybe even a little neglected, but which have enough evidence and clues that anyone with a will and an Internet connection can try to piece together the puzzle. That's exciting to me. It feels like the difference between looking forward or looking back. I get why people would be interested in the psychology of a criminal, but it's more interesting to me to be presented with a puzzle and given the opportunity to try and solve it.
AAB: A few studies conducted in the mid-1990's found that an individual's increase in the consumption of true crime news reports could be correlated to a decrease in said individual's understanding of the actual prevalence of crime. To quote historian Joy Wiltenburg, "In all periods, discourses and rituals of crime, rather than direct experience of criminal acts, are the key determinants of crime's cultural impact." Being an author well-entrenched in such reportage, does this bother you?
MM: Yes. It bothers me that people seem to think their children are vulnerable to kidnappers at every corner, without understanding that how they cook their eggs, or fence their pool, is roughly a thousand times more dangerous. I try as much as possible to stay away from sensationalism or fear-mongering in my own reportage. On a personal level, I think my husband would say that being steeped in crime stories all day has made me jumpy and a little suspicious. There's probably not a sound in the night now where I won't shake him awake and whisper, "What was that!?"
AAB: The historic significance of True Crime as a genre (or perhaps "criminal anecdotes" is a better term here) has been its ability to reflect back to society the ever-changing relationship between the individual, power, authority, and discipline. While the earliest written accounts that scholars point to as examples of proto-True Crime (16th Century) heavily equated crime and biblical sin, and were usually written from the perspective of the victim. This obviously shifted over time and by the 19th century it was secularized and more importance was placed on the criminal mind. Do you find that the current state of True Crime is significantly different than it was 5, 10, 15 + years ago?
MM: I think it certainly seems more prevalent, with the proliferation of true crime news shows, etc. I'm not sure I know exactly how it's different than just a few years ago, but I'd say two points come to mind. There's simply so much more information available now than there used to be. People whose interest has been piqued by a particular case can now find whole websites devoted to it. Also, I think it's probably true that we live in a much more insecure time. Perhaps people seek out crime stories to confirm their sense that the world is an unstable place that's falling apart. Or maybe it's a "it could be worse for me" scenario.
AAB: A couple of informal surveys done by publishers and bookstore owners found the audience for mass-market True Crime to be overwhelmingly female. As a male myself, I don't feel comfortable ruminating on why this might be. Any thoughts? Feel free to represent all women everywhere.
MM: Ha! I get asked this a lot. I think about this a lot. Yet, I don't have a good answer. I know for myself that an interesting dichotomy is that I cannot at all stomach visual images of violence. Even on network crime dramas, I will walk away if the tension builds and I think blood is coming. Yet, I have no problem reading accounts of horrible violence. I guess my sense is that maybe that first inability to handle violence is my more stereotypical "female" side, and the other side is the female who's not at all in touch with brutality seeking to know that side of life, what people are capable of?
If I really wanted to cause trouble I might suggest that women are more naturally nosey. I know I am. Start a sentence with, "The woman disappeared..." and I won't be able to let it go. Who? Where? What?
AAB: My own interest in True Crime books was sparked when I read Bully by Jim Schutze. This was subsequently adapted into a pretty terrible film by Larry Clarke. And when I think about it, I've seen a string of really bad True Crime movies recently. Am I missing something or is it really hard to make quality cinema out of True Crime?
MM: I can think of some examples of hits rather than misses --- Bonnie and Clyde, Boys Don't Cry, Monster come to mind. I had mixed feelings about Zodiac. I admired the film, but I felt the perfect attention to period detail was overly clinical and almost distracting. It felt like in getting everything to look right, some vital but underlying truths about the case were presented wrong. Most well-versed Zodiac sleuths don't feel Arthur Leigh Allen is a viable suspect anymore, for example. I don't know. I have one foot in Hollywood, having written TV pilots and screenplays in the past; my husband is in entertainment. My feeling is that movie making is tremendously hard, and when all the variables come together, and the final product is good, it's nearly a miracle.
I also think this is an example where the real story is often just so compelling that fictionalizing it falls short. The same way I would always prefer a compelling nonfiction book over a fictional one, I prefer a great documentary over a feature. There have been so many terrific crime documentaries. The Thin Blue Line, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, The Staircase, Dear Zachary...
AAB: Do you ever find yourself second-guessing your own motives when you consume or write about True Crime? Like perhaps you are acting on undesirable prurient impulses?
MM: Yes. But I try and remember the origin of my interest in crime. A neighbor was brutally murdered just blocks from my house when I was 14. I wasn't titillated, but horrified. I couldn't imagine a world where everyone could move on and this violent madman was still roaming the streets (still is, by the way, her case was never solved). I feel most guilty when I look over a case and start thinking about ways to frame it into a story. These are real people; their pain is tremendous. I'm absolutely disturbed when I see true crime websites with animated blood dripping across the screen. It's pretty easy to tell those who, for lack of a better term, "get off" on murder rather than have a real desire to see justice. I find that abhorrent. I'm not being naive or disingenuous --- I realize my blog isn't about fruit flies, or Civil War heroes. There's an element of mystery and drama to the stories I cover. But the overriding motivation remains sharing cold case stories, finding answers, and seeing those responsible put away.
AAB: What sort of plans do you have for your blog and podcast?